The entrepreneurial spirit is well and alive in Main Line area natives Jess Edelstein, originally from Lower Merion, and her business partner, Sarah Ribner, originally of Mount Airy. The pair met back in fourth grade, attending Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, and the way they tell it, have been friends—and business partners—ever since. Their first play date was none other than a lemonade stand down the street from Ribner’s childhood home.
Though they didn’t make much—if any—money from their early venture, it taught them a lesson on supply and demand and, perhaps more importantly, being able to re-pay their backers—in this case, mom and dad.
PiperWai cofounders Jess Edelstein (left) and Sarah Ribner
Photo courtesy of PiperWai.
The duo has remained best friends over nearly two decades, so much so that Edelstein considers Ribner a sister. Today, they are co-owners of a burgeoning natural deodorant business, PiperWai. Though neither woman has made PiperWai her full time career—Edelstein is a real estate agent in Philadelphia and Ribner is an MBA student at Columbia University—they hope to see it grow and be something they can do full time.
Their shared desire to use natural products, including deodorant, sent Edelstein on a quest. Finding many subpar products, which she says simply didn’t work or irritated her sensitive skin, she set out to create her own. “I tinkered around with some versions in my kitchen,” she says. Having no chemistry background, Edelstein relied on her general scientific knowledge and her ability to effectively research, a skill she honed while earning her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh.
Edelstein came up with a formula she liked and was different from other brands. Most natural deodorants use baking soda as one of the key odor fighting ingredients, she explains. “Baking soda is very irritating when it’s the only odor-neutralizing ingredient. PiperWai uses a small amount, at the threshold of effectiveness, without causing irritation for the vast majority of our customers,” she says.
To combat odors, PiperWai uses the now-trendy product, charcoal. “It wasn’t quite as popular a couple years ago,” Edelstein says. “Sarah and I had to really research it and make sure it was a safe ingredient. It rubs in clear. Finding the right amount so that it’s effective but won’t stain your clothing was something else we had to consider.”
With the new formula, Edelstein was able to convince Ribner to try it. Coincidentally, Ribner was taking a volunteer trip to the ever-humid continent of South America around the time Edelstein was in development. Product in hand, Ribner discovered it worked. It wasn’t long before they were making batches from a community kitchen in Philadelphia.
Demand soon outpaced their production. They pitched investors for the first half of 2015 and they headed to Indiegogo to further their brand and raise funding to help them get production orders with a Conshohocken manufacturer. “We couldn’t keep handcrafting it. The max we could do was 500 units per month,” Ribner says. They successfully met their campaign goals and, with the encouragement of friends and family, decided to aim even higher—ABC’s Shark Tank.
“Applying to Shark Tank felt like a very lofty dream,” Edelstein admits. “They only accept a very, very small percentage of companies that apply. Of course that kind of exposure and having a shark as a partner is very desirable. Who wouldn’t want that?”
The hit show features entrepreneurs pitching their creations to four major business moguls, all self-made million and billionaires, in the hopes of gaining their financial backing, years of industry knowledge and over all support, all while exposing themselves to a large audience and host of potential buyers.
So how does one prepare to go in front of four business titans and gain their respect? Binge watch the show, of course. That’s exactly what Edelstein and Ribner did as part of their preparation, in addition to reading books the sharks had written, prepping for potential questions and learning the sharks’ personal histories.
“I think binge watching the show was definitely the most helpful,” Edelstein says. But it wasn’t without its struggles. “When we first started, it was really stressful for me to watch. I could only watch one pitch at a time. The thought of being there myself made me really nervous. I finally got desensitized to it after about 10 or 20 episodes.”
Despite watching many episodes, they both describe the actual experience of being on set as surreal. Even more so since, despite interest from the show, they were never guaranteed placement on an episode, or even having the opportunity to pitch to the sharks.
“I definitely got a little emotional,” Edelstein says of the experience on set. “I built this thing with my best friend. The business is my baby, our baby.”
They’ve clearly put a great deal of themselves into launching their business, and it’s paid off so far. They are currently in 38 independent retailers across the country and recently launched on Amazon.com. The nerves of appearing on TV persist as they wait to see the episode air to roughly eight million people.
“I’m a little nervous about how it will look on TV because I’ve never been on TV before and this is prime time,” Edelstein says. “It’s kind of scary, but also very exciting. It’s going to be completely surreal,” she says.
Ribner echoed her partner’s sentiments. “I don’t know what to expect. I’m just hopeful that we look somewhat presentable.”
How did they fair when faced with sharks like Mark Cuban, founder of HDNet, MicroSolutions and Broadcast.com, Barbara Corcoran, a writer and real estate tycoon, Lori Greiner, creator of over 400 products and QVC host, and Robert Herjavec, a leading IT and tech entrepreneur? Find out when they appear on ABC’s Shark Tank, Friday, Dec. 11 at 9 p.m.